December 9
, 2012       David Timbs (Melbourne)    David's previous articles 


Did not our hearts burn within us...?

It is on the historical record, that Christian communities have survived for a very long time without the Eucharist and other Sacraments dependent on the ministry of a priest.  Some even today continue to manage, even thrive in similar circumstances. What is evident also from historical accounts, is that these communities have endured because of effective animation, good preaching and teaching. A couple of examples come to mind: the thousand plus years that the Christian Bedouins of Karak then Madaba, in the Transjordan , were without a priest and for many decades the early Catholic community of Korea was deprived of priests. These Christians did not just survive, they flourished. The Spirit supplied when there was no Eucharist.

The Word enshrined

The Second Vatican Council restored some of the greatest treasures of the Church: the vernacular liturgy and the rediscovery of the Scriptures. Both led to a renewed appreciation of a proper equilibrium in the structure of liturgy and life in the Catholic Church. Above all,  structural integrity was at last restored to the Eucharistic celebration: the Penitential Rite, the Liturgy of the Word and Liturgy of the Eucharist. Furthermore, this enriched theology of the Eucharist has awakened a keener sense of the Real Presence of Christ in Word, Priest, People and Eucharist. Key to this was the elevation of the Liturgy of the Word to its original  status along with the restoration of the homily. The driving force and authority for all of this came from the Council itself,

“For it is from scripture that lessons are read and explained in the homily.” – The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy # 24 and, “By means of the homily the mysteries of faith and the guiding principles of the Christian lifer are expounded from the sacred text....; the homily is to be highly esteemed as part of the liturgy itself; ...” # 52.

Vat II’s focus on the integral importance of the Liturgy of the Word within the Eucharistic Rite gave rise to renewed enthusiasm for homiletics among both priests and people. Theological institutes gave priority to liturgical studies, connecting them systemically with courses in Church history and pastoral theology. Things had been far different. Prior to the Council, the preaching component of ministerial studies was mainly covered in seminars on so-called Sacred Eloquence and rubrics classes.

Something of a golden period of preaching followed for decades after the Council. Both preachers and lay proclaimers of the Word showed much energy and enthusiasm when offered the opportunity to minister together during the celebration of the Eucharist and other rituals

Over the past decade or so, however, things appear to have changed noticeably. The generation of Vatican II priests and lay leaders have begun to disappear because of death, retirement or otherwise. Much of the high energy, thrall and genius of their ministry of the Word seem to be diminished with them. There are now some very serious concerns being expressed about the decline especially in the quality of preaching. Alarm bells are starting to ring in many different sections of the Church. [1] Some rather disturbing anecdotal evidence  indicates that in the US especially but probably elsewhere, increasing numbers of preachers are becoming extremely lazy, are down-loading homilies and delivering them as if they were their own work. A commenter, for example, in Cathnewsusa has reported just recently that he and his wife heard the exact same ‘homily’ at two Masses on the same day in two different cities, 110 km apart!

Discontent and malaise

Some of the sentiments of discontent and criticism being expressed about declining preaching standards are: homilies are either unprepared or not prepared at all; preachers show little evidence of having actually studied the texts given the professional skills they have acquired; that they fail to make comprehensible and credible connections between the Mass readings and the actual lives of the people. As a consequence of these failures, Catholics are increasingly feeling isolated and alienated from the Word of God. Not only that, they are rapidly becoming disconnected from Liturgical life itself. They find themselves leaving Mass uninspired, discouraged, cheated, angry and cynical.

An added factor in the decline and loss of talent is the obvious huge exodus of Catholics from the Church over the past thirty plus years. Loss of morale is now endemic among both priests and people and the effects among the former are showing up in many ways. They look and sound jaded, tired and dispirited. There are the unmistakable signs of a group which has forgotten its wisdom and lost its collective nerve, energy and imagination. Often the homily has become a droning series of clichés, non-sequiturs and free association. No wonder preaching has become a casualty of spiritual and psychological attrition.

There are also growing indications that the standard of preaching is even more woeful among the new breed of priests, the JP II and Benedict XVI ones emerging from the reformed seminaries. The differences, though, are significant. This body of young men impresses little by way of intellect, imagination or pastoral awareness. They seem more intent on aping the clerical subculture of the counter-Reformation than entering into and immersing themselves in the world of ordinary people. Many appear never to have grasped the concept of a homily let alone a Liturgy with full, conscious and active participation by the laity. Added to that is the distinct impression that as a group, they are far more comfortable with endless sermonising on a single-issue morality and obscure pieties.

The Word of God is not inert. It is alive and active and must be treated as such. It always has something powerful and transformative to say to the day to day human situation. Christians can indeed survive a protracted Sacramental drought but they cannot last for long without the living spring which is the Word of God, preached with conviction and pertinence. Maybe it is because Catholics have not heard this for so long that they have become disenchanted, given up and have taken the deliberate, conscious walk away from the Catholic community.

 We might all do well, for encouragement’s sake, to remember another walk with a somewhat different outcome, “They said to each other, Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Lk 24: 32)

[1] For the call for better preaching from the American bishops at their recent bi-annual conference click here and be sure to click on the NCR link at the bottom of the item for the source article and comments. They are very informative indeed.

For an earlier article on the quality of preaching homilies, published in Cathnews Australia, click here.

David Timbs writes from Melbourne , Victoria , Australia .

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